I get excited about new things Disney will bring to the theme parks. But, I was both confused and troubled by the 2011 Avatar announcement. Universal Studios had just opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which had become an immediate success. It looked like the Disney Company was feeling the heat in a way that had not happened in the history of their prized theme park franchise, which contributes a significant amount to the corporate bottom line. The country was still coming out of the recession/depression, which, I’m guessing, didn’t help Disney World attendance. So, rather than simply accept loss of market share in the Florida area, Disney was going to put up a fight to maintain its position as the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of theme park entertainment. But, the longer Harry Potter remained strong, without a new wow Disney experience, the more likely that more theme park dollars would go to Universal. Thus, time to market was going to make it hard to find something organically Disney which would get the public’s attention.
As first movie to earn more than $2B worldwide the Avatar had sold a ton of movie tickets. Director/Producer Cameron had already announced sequels were already in the works. Disney may have seen this as an opportunity to build on an already successful franchise while they were building the new park area. Looking in the post-LucasArts acquisition, rearview mirror since, Disney may have even tried to buy Avatar, before settling on a partnership with Cameron. I must admit; I was not all that excited about the prospects of having Imagineers working on a product that didn’t come from somewhere inside the world of Disney. Yes, they did acquire The Jim Henson Company and create the very popular Muppet*Vision 3d. But the Muppets were more about a collection of wonderful characters that Disney could use in a variety of ways. The movie Avatar was more than just interesting characters; it was a wholly imagined world. In the meantime, the expected Avatar sequel or sequels have been delayed numerous times, including most recently in March of 2017.
Placing Pandora inside Animal Kingdom seemed like a workable idea. I’ve been doing some planning for a trip to Disneyland this summer, and realized that I had never been on the Jungle Cruise there. Originally, Walt had wanted to populate the attraction with real animals. But, at the time, it just wasn’t possible, so, Animatronics were used instead. In a way, Joe Rhode’s Animal Kingdom fulfilled one of Walt’s dreams — to give guests an opportunity to come face to face with the wild kingdom, which Walt had once quipped were “some of the most fascinating people I ever met. . “Disney’s Animal Kingdom was never meant to be about Disney films or characters. Rhode wanted to offer guests an immersive “edutainment” experience in a faraway land, filled with adventure, mystery and mystique. Uncle Walt would have been completely behind all those ideas. And, his often quoted belief that Disneyland would always be changing has been taken to another level through the creation of a living theme park, where the animals are unscripted and unpredictable. How many of you have been on the Safari and had to wait while an unhurried rhino or other tenant blocked your truck? And, while it has seen a reduced presence, Animal Kingdom was meant to help raise environmental awareness.
Now, after 6 years of work, Disney, with marketing hoopla commensurate with the effort, is about to unveil Pandora – The World of Avatar. And, while I still think it was an
odd and unexpected direction for Disney to take, my initial negativity toward the addition has been tempered by putting Pandora into the Animal Kingdom context. I recently re-watched Avatar, and without a doubt, Pandora is very far away and very alien to us. It delivers a movie experience filled with adventure, mystery and magic. We’re being told that guests will enter this strange world and encounter much of the environment in an interactive way. I experienced the Imagineers’ immersive approach long before the area was completed when I went through the Pandora exhibit at the 2015 D23 Expo. The Cast Members were presented as employees of Alpha Centauri Expeditions, a company organizing tours to the planet. There was a salesy video commercial of what would be included in the trip and then we got to view a detailed model and other items we would see there. In typical Imagineer fashion, Pandora Cast Member name Itags, will include, not just origin city and state, but “Earth”, as well.
I think some of the central themes of the movie are exactly in line with the themes and messages conveyed during a visit to Animal Kingdom. Avatar presents a world and its people that are in tune and interdependent. The respect for one another that the inhabitants demonstrate on Pandora is the same as the edutainment messages we get from It’s Tough to be a Bug and Kali River Rapids as well as reminding us of majesty of nature and the connection between animals and humans in the Rivers of Light show. By allowing guests to get closer to the animals in their natural habitat than most Zoos, Disney gives us the opportunity to get to know creatures with which we share the Earth. They don’t remain obscure images, but take on reality after which most people can no longer resist the temptation to want to insure their survival.
Once past the entrance gate of Animal Kingdom, we are immediately immersed in the greenness of the Park and all the traditional park trappings maintain the sense of being in a place for away geographically, culturally and societally. Aside from the basic plot, Much of the Avatar movie is spent, in great science fiction fashion, world building. We learn about the native Navi’s religion, family structure, myths, government as well as the world’s rules which maintain harmony within Pandora’s circle of life. The movie stresses what can happen when the balance of nature is upset and how nature will fight to maintain that equilibrium. Animal Kingdom guests can get a look at how the animals are cared for, explore Conservation Station, animal encounters and other interactive, educational areas to learn more. Riding Expedition Everest offers a cautionary tale of the dangers that lurk in unexplored parts of any world.
So, a match that, at first glance, did not seem to make sense, looks different when evaluated against the backdrop of what Animal Kingdom represents. Being transported to Pandora is no different than climbing Everest, going underground with bugs, crossing an African reserve or stopping off at a 1950’s roadside attraction created by an dinosaur bone dig. Walt not only loved natural beauty, but by almost single handedly creating the wildlife documentary format in True Life Adventures, he showed his respect and admiration for our beast, bird and fish neighbors. I’m not sure when I’m going to get there to see Pandora for myself. In the meantime, I’m trying to avoid all the Fan generated video and “reviews” so I can experience it without spoilers or other people’s ideas in my head. I not only expect to be amazed, thrilled and entertained, but reminded that it’s up to us to care for the fragile, little planet Earth that we call home.